Chicagoans know—and love—their beer. Whether from city or suburb, we know where to find good beer, and we know what good beer tastes like. Not that there isn’t room for a freezing-cold Miller Lite every now and again (this reviewer knows someone who swears it’s perfect on a blazing summer day with a hot brat right off the grill). But it seems no one from around these parts is afraid to try something a little more daring than a bastardized lager.
From long-standing local brewery stalwarts like Rock Bottom and Goose Island (which was sold to industry giant Anheuser-Busch for $38.8 million in 2011) to relative newcomers like Revolution and Half Acre, Chicago is home to a multitude of breweries whipping up some unusual, flavorful, and well-loved beers and ciders. In fact, as Anna Blessing notes in Locally Brewed, the number of breweries in Chicago and the suburbs is growing exponentially. And Chicago isn’t alone in welcoming new breweries into its midst. Blessing notes that by the end of 2012, about 2,000 breweries could be found from coast to coast, “the highest number since before Prohibition.”
Profiling all those breweries would be nearly impossible (although a lot of fun), and so Blessing has, in Locally Brewed, narrowed her focus to twenty craft breweries in the Midwest. Her colorful, flavorful tour takes readers to breweries in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, from microbreweries producing less than 1,000 barrels a year to relative giants putting out more than 200,000 barrels annually.
In this case, size doesn’t matter—at least when it comes to craft breweries. Blessing notes that when it comes to beer, “craft” hasn’t exactly been defined; some view it as a term akin to “artisanal” while some argue that to be a craft brewery means the operation has to be small and/or independent. Some believe it to mean that the beer is distributed only locally. Still others insist that the bottom line on “craft brewing” is that the beverages have to be unique and made from high-quality ingredients.
Regardless of how Blessing, brewers, or readers define “craft beer,” the fact is that Locally Brewed is an interesting tour through some fascinating breweries, all of which put a lot of heart and soul (literally) and blood and tears (not literally) into the ales, ciders, IPAs, lagers, stouts, etc., etc., they brew. In fact, this colorful book, packed with hundreds of photographs, is really more about the people behind the breweries than about the beer. Readers will learn much about the faces behind the creative labels as Blessing recounts how brewmasters and owners got their starts in the business, how they toiled night and day—some risking everything and nearly going bankrupt—in order to brew the perfect beer, reach loyal customers, and work out distribution logistics that would get their highly perishable beverages to bars, pubs, restaurants, and stores quickly without spoiling.
Each of the twenty craft breweries featured in the book receives a similar treatment, with Blessing focusing on what inspired the people behind each brewery to give it a go, what makes them unique, and what their plans for the future are. “Get a Pint” sidebars pepper the text throughout, typically listing where beerlovers can buy a glass of the featured brew, and some entries include “Brewer’s Playlist” features that list some of the music a particular brewery tends to play while brewing and bottling their beverages.
Locally Brewed is part tour guide, part regional history, part travelogue. At less than two hundred pages, it is by no means an exhaustive compendium of every brewery in the Midwest. As such, some readers will surely be disappointed that their favorite craft brewer isn’t listed. And, as noted, some readers may quibble with some of the selections Blessing has included. Although some of the featured breweries are small shops that distribute only to their home states, others are much larger operations that deliver to dozens of states if not the entire country.
Such quibbles aside, Locally Brewed is engaging and fun. It is a light read that one can easily skim through, a book that would serve perfectly well as a guide for those readers who like to check out new places; many of the breweries featured are within a relatively easy drive from Chicago, either as a day trip or a long weekend.
Those who like simply to drink their beer rather than read about it or even think about it, though, might better enjoy leafing through and looking at the hundreds of color photographs sprinkled on nearly every page. Although, oddly (and somewhat frustratingly), a number of the images are not accompanied by captions, they do make for a good-looking book that is richly colored and nicely designed.
Beer neophytes might find the text a wee bit above their comprehension levels as much of the text assumes that readers are familiar with the lexicon of craft brewing. A glossary would have been a helpful addition here to help educate those readers who want to learn more about the industry without having to sign up for classes at the Siebel Institute of Technology.
A lack of captions and glossary, however, by no means spoil the book (nor does the entry about Central Waters Brewing Company, which seems to have escaped the eyes of a copy editor). Locally Brewed is fun and engaging, a unique look inside regional craft brewing that will easily make mouths water. Beer aficionados may well finish the book itching to rush off to an unexplored brewery or the nearest brewpub to try a pint of a stout or ale or hefewiese that heretofore has gone untasted. In the end, Blessing’s new book is rich, creamy, and deep in flavor, just like a good craft brew.
February 2014, Midway/Agate Publishing
$22.95, paperback, 191 pages
—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen
Learn more about the book.
“He was a wise man who invented beer.”